Christmas Eve represents a major dichotomy in our church (and, I suspect, in many others). For the children, it means sheer, unbridled excitement – the adrenaline rush of which turns most of them into little whirligigs of chaos. For the adults, it means redemption – the strength of which calms their souls and creates an overriding peace. In other words, oil and water.
So what do we do? In some misguided attempt to reconcile the two, we look at what is arguably the most important date of the Christian liturgical calendar – the holiest night of the year – and we put it in the hands of the aforementioned whirligigs. We let them tell the story, and pray to God that they can pull it off.
I’m talking, of course, about the children’s Christmas pageant – the most wonderful, dreadful, reaffirming, stressful 15 minutes of church service throughout the year. Here’s how ours progressed:
5:00pm – We arrive at the church with Matthew, a shepherd, and Christopher, one of the three wise guys. The Mary-to-be runs up and tells Christopher not to put his robe on just yet, as tonight’s Joseph is a no-show. We tell him to go ahead and robe up, so we won’t have that to worry about as we try to reign in the other 30 children in the church social hall.
5:25pm – Still no Joseph. The pageant director wants to take pictures before the service begins – in five minutes. She makes the call to let Christopher play Joseph and promotes a shepherd to replace him as king.
5:30pm – Pictures taken, we decide to practice the kids’ songs one last time. Two saints take the barnyard animals – a dozen or so nervous preschoolers – into the parlor to read a story until it’s time to go into the “big church.” A couple of angels begin to act up, loudly saying the wrong words to the songs and laughing uproariously. We give them a stern shushing and practice for real. The kids can’t remember the right words. And they’re singing them off-key. We hope the congregation can’t hear us.
5:45pm – Joseph arrives amidst practice. The pageant director tries to break the news to him as gently as possible. How do you tell a child that if his parents had brought him there on time, he might have been allowed to sing with friends instead of reading a Gospel passage alone in front of 300 strangers?
6:00pm – We get the word that it’s time to process in. Someone tries to round up the barnyard animals while we line up the other players by order of appearance. The two obnoxious angels from earlier decide this is a perfect time to tease Mary and Joseph.
“You two love each other!”
“Yeah, you’re married! That’s why you have that baby!” [Boy, does that kid need to re-read her New Testament.]
Mary and Joseph begin to distance themselves from one another.
“Hold it!” I snap at the Loudest Angel. “You know they’re not really married, so stop saying it. Everyone here is play-acting – these two are no more married than you two are angels!”
They look at me, dumb-founded. Probably many years in the future, each of them will wake up in the middle of the night and understand the true subtext of what I said to them this night.
6:05pm – The kids leave the annex, walking up the sidewalk to a side door in the church narthex – laughing all the way. We try desperately to shush them as the barnyard animals arrive, rushing to catch up.
“Hey, I smell chicken nuggets!” shouts a camel, despite having been shushed several times already.
“You’re gonna smell a camel burger if you don’t quiet down,” growls an adult in response. (Might have been me.)
6:06pm – Everyone is inside the narthex except the animals, who won’t quiet down. I look at the usher holding the door for us and whisper, “Bunch of animals!” They quiet down and we manage to squeeze them into the narthex with the rest of the crew. A two-year-old cow, previously calm, suddenly looks up in terror, shouts “Mommy?!?” and breaks into a screeching sob. I’ve never heard anything so loud. Every adult in the narthex panics, trying to calm her down while asking one another who her mother is and where she might be sitting in the packed sanctuary. We can hear the priest reading the Gospel inside and realize that means he and everyone else in there must be able to hear this sobbing child. And we are helpless to make it stop.
6:10pm – The cow’s daddy, having recognized his daughter’s screech, steps out of the sanctuary and into the narthex. The only problem is, he’s on the opposite end of the narthex and has to make his way through nine shepherds, eight angels, three kings, Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, the star-bearer and the steady stream of families showing up very late for Christmas Eve service. I try to direct the cow’s attention to him, hoping she’ll calm down if she sees him coming. She doesn’t. She’s looking for her mommy, not her daddy. Her sister the sheep, however, is delighted to see him and shouts out, “Poppy!” about as loudly as she is currently screaming, “Mommy!”
6:13pm – The cow decides Daddy is good enough and quiets down. Now it’s time to wrangle the shepherd who’s lagging behind the others, attempting to lock the church doors. Meanwhile, Gabriel has begun walking into the sanctuary as the congregation sings, “Angels We Have Heard on High.” I sneak a peek inside while I’m trying not to strangle the wayward shepherd and realize every other pew has been adorned with a hurricane lamp with a lighted candle atop a tall, precariously balanced pole. If we get out of this without one of the kids setting the church ablaze, it will be a Christmas miracle.
6:15pm – Mary and Joseph are processing to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” when I realize the shepherds are loudly singing the wrong lyrics. I can only hope the congregation doesn’t hear them and are able to sing on their own. I move in to correct them and realize that the loudest, most enthusiastic singer of the wrong verse is my son.
6:16pm – A late family enters the narthex from the far side and attempts to cut through the children to approach the middle door. I try to wave them off from preventing the adequate flow of shepherds when I realize they might have come in the correct door, had it not been locked. One of the family members is wearing a tee-shirt that says, “Ask me about being a gangsta.” I wonder if this is appropriate for the highest service of the year, but let it go when she gives me a dirty look. I hope she won’t knife any barnyard animals as she wades through the narthex. The rest of the latecomers proceed up the far aisle and I learn later from the accompanist – my wife – that they walked to one of the pews reserved for the pageant children, shoved the “Reserved” sign aside and proceeded to fill the pew.
6:19pm – The barnyard animals are processing in and Daddy has almost convinced the panicked cow to join them when Sister Sheep begins to wail because she doesn’t want to process without her little sister cow. I’m about to panic when another Christmas miracle occurs and the cow takes matters into her own hooves – this is her chance to shine and she forgets her previous panic as she jumps out of Daddy’s arms and leads her big sister into the animal throng. She has been given a new raison d’etre as she convinces her sister the sheep to join her. Both are now processing when Daddy looks at me and shrugs. Any port in a storm.
6:23pm – All pageant participants are successfully in place on the altar as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” begins and not one of them remembers this is the queue to exit. Two ushers, the pageant director and I stand in the central narthex doorway, beckoning to the star-bearer to begin the recessional and take a barnyard animal by the paw to begin their exit.
6:25pm – She takes the hint.
6:26pm – All animals are recessing, save the screeching cow and her sister the sheep. Suddenly Daddy is part of the pageant, rushing up to the altar to carry one and take the other by the hoof.
6:27pm – The shepherds follow suit, with kings, Mary, Joseph and Gabriel close on their heels. Mary and Joseph remember to bring their baby, unlike the last practice. Joy to the world.
6:28pm – The alleged “silent disrobing” portion of the pageant begins as we whisper congratulations and attempt to shush the actors as we pull off costumes and send them back to the front of the church to sit through the rest of the service, crammed into a space that feels to them as if it’s one row too short.
7:20pm – The main service ends and everyone leaves. In the parents’ minds, no mistakes were made and their children were perfect, equaling success. In the children’s minds, church is over and Santa is on his way, equaling success. In my mind, the church wasn’t burned to the ground, equaling success.
In the pageant director’s mind, it’s eleven months until practices begin for the next pageant, equaling success.
Christmas is upon us; may yours be a success.